"On the 9th of August (1944) I was still taking part in the Warsaw Uprising, and already on the night between the 11th and 12th of August, I was a prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. No more than two days before that, I had a normal life. I had a mother and a father. All of the sudden, I was all alone," Bogdan Bartnikowski said in a conversation with Magda Łucyan, a reporter from "Fakty" TVN.
The series of conversations with former prisoners of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau has been conducted to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the camp’s liberation that falls on the 27th of January.
Born in 1932, Bogdan Bartnikowski was a liaison in the Warsaw Uprising. Together with his mother he was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August, 1944. He was 12 years old at that time. His prisoner number was: 192731.
Mr Bartnikowski remembers very well the moment of entering the gates of the camp. "It was nighttime. The train stopped and the doors got opened wide. Outside stood a cordon of SS officers with dogs watching the unloading ramp. I turned my head and I saw two huge chimneys from which flames, a few metres high, were coming out. The air was filled with an extreme stench, some unknown odour that made it difficult to breathe. In the far distance in front of us, something was burning on the ground, some sort of fires. We had no idea that those were heaps of dead people set on fire," he recalled.
Mr Bartnikowski recalled that the biggest fear overpowered him when together with other kids, they had asked the older prisoners, the overseers, known as the kapos, about the reasons for their being in the camp. "We were just kids, what could we have possibly done?", they wondered. "They only laughed at our questions and said: "You would like to see freedom, wouldn’t you? You see those chimneys? The only way to freedom leads through those chimneys. There’s no other way out". This was the terrifying answer they had heard.
The former prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau also spoke about the everyday routine in the camp. "The camp was all about stripping us of our individuality. Crowded all the time, we were rushed and pushed around. Beaten. Without any rights, any possibility to complain to anyone," he listed.
"Frankly speaking, even without any possibility to clean ourselves," he added. "When the adult prisoners were returning from work, we were given half litre of soup. It was water with a few bits of rutabaga, cabbage and two or three worms. Larvae of the so-called cabbage butterfly. They were white so we thought those were noodles, at first. But those were cooked worms, which we never threw away. It was the only meat I ever saw in the camp," said Mr Bartnikowski. He added that each prisoner also got about 200 grams of bread.
Everyday in the camp was marked with a roll call to check if all the prisoners were there. "My first roll call really stuck in my head, because when we had formed a line, right next to the barracks, a pile of bodies was laying," Mr Bartnikowski remembered. "They were laid with their heads on one side, five in a row, all covered with lime. When an SS officer showed up, he counted us first and then counted the bodies and added all of us up," said Mr Bartnikowski. He also remembered the officer saying that the count was correct.
"When we were led to the showers, only a few times in the first five months… we weren’t certain if those were actual shower rooms. And we were waiting under the showers, all squished up and naked, for the water to start pouring down. At first, it actually did. Cold water. But after a moment it stopped and we just stood there and asked ourselves what’s next. Will it be water again, or will it not be water? Water! Relief. Not our turn yet. We will still make it back to the barracks," Bartnikowski didn’t hide his tears when recalling this dreadful experience.
Mr Bartnikowski and his peers from the camp were often assigned to pull a cart, as there were no horses available. One day they were told to pull the cart to the female section of the camp. "We dropped the cart and ran towards the barracks, as we knew from the distance that our mothers must have been kept there. For the first time in three months, I was able to run over to my mom. With no barbed wire between us, we were able to hug each other, to look at each other face to face. And even though, we had to run back quickly, it was a wonderful day," he said.
In his account, Bogdan Bartnikowski stressed the importance of prayer.
"Every evening, when we were rushed back to the barracks, after we climbed up onto our bunks, we were praying together out loud. This was very important too. It helped us to keep hope that one day we would be free again," he underscored.
The liberation came in January 1945.
"It was precisely the 11th of January 1945. I was walking along with a group of women and holding hands with my mom… and we realised that we were actually getting out," that’s how Mr Bartnikowski remembered that special moment. The day of freedom.
The former prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau was also asked what would he like pass on to the future generations. "I wish (for younger generations) not to ever be forced out of their homes, not to ever be put behind barbed wire," he replied. "Never to feel that their biggest wish was not to be hungry and not to be separated from their parents. Regardless of what life situations they might find themselves in, I wish for them to be free of any hatred. Just because someone is different, has a different skin colour, or speaks a different language. After all, we are very much the same. We are all human," Bogdan Bartnikowski concluded.